Friday, March 25, 2011

City’s School-Liaison Office Is Said to Seek Supportive Parents By Fernanda Santos & Sharon Otterman -

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In 2007, the New York City Department of Education created an office to help families navigate the school system and to make sure their grievances got to the right ears.

Known then as the Office of Family Engagement and Advocacy, it was set up as a bridge between parents and the department’s central office, and was intended to address complaints that parents had lost their voice when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took control of the schools.

But lately, according to people who have had dealings with the office, the role has been expanded in a way that has made some of them uncomfortable.

In January, at a meeting of parent coordinators from a number of schools, employees of the office asked them to forge relationships with parents who they thought might speak out in support of the department’s policies, including its controversial push to close failing schools. The employees at one point used a nickname to describe the type of parents they were looking for: “Happy Harrys,” and not “Angry Sallys,” as two coordinators recalled it.

And on Tuesday, an employee at the office circulated a petition among nearly 400 coordinators citywide, asking them to round up parents’ signatures. The petition was in support of one of the mayor’s most concerted political efforts of the year: to persuade the Legislature to end the law protecting the most senior teachers in the event of layoffs.

The unions representing teachers and parent coordinators — city employees who work inside schools and act as points of contact for families — have called for an investigation, charging that the Education Department used public money and civil servants to advance a political cause.

“Seniority has been and is a political issue,” said Santos Crespo, the president of District Council 37, Local 372, which represents the city’s roughly 1,200 parent coordinators. “They were asked to do a political function, out of the purview of their job scope, let alone the conflicts of using public employees to do political work.”

In an interview, the city’s deputy mayor for education, Dennis M. Walcott, said, “What happened around the petition should not have happened.” But he made no excuses for the Education Department’s broader attempts at mobilizing parents.

“There are parents who aren’t satisfied with what’s going on in the schools and there are parents who are,” Mr. Walcott said. “That’s what we work on: to improve our abilities to engage them.”

There has always been a political gray area embedded in the mission of the family engagement office, a division of about 20 employees. Among its roles are running elections to citywide parent councils and organizing an annual lobbying trip for parents to Albany to advocate state financing for city schools, two relatively noncontroversial efforts.

But after Mr. Bloomberg only narrowly won a third term in 2009, there was a growing realization among some in his inner circle that the city had not done enough to win the support of public school parents for the mayor’s education agenda. There was also a sense that the office of family engagement offered a great deal of untapped potential for organizing through its existing network of parent coordinators, said a person who was familiar with the discussions within the Bloomberg administration at the time, but declined to be named so as not to anger City Hall.

One change was to appoint Maura Keaney, a top aide from Mr. Bloomberg’s re-election campaign, to head the Department of Education’s office of external affairs, which organizes all political lobbying and communications work for the department. She appointed a new executive director for the office of family engagement, Ojeda Hall, a dynamic youth minister and community organizer from Queens. Ms. Keaney, who is on maternity leave, did not return calls for comment.

In the effort to reshape the office, one of the first moves was to give it a new name: the Office of Family Information and Action.

There was little discussion, the person said, about whether there might be a conflict about taking on a more political role. “I think the feeling is you are not asking someone to do something they don’t want to do, and parents who disagree with you, it’s not like you are going to give them worse services,” the person said. “You are just trying to identify parents who do support parts of your agenda, and if they want to, why not enlist them?”

On Jan. 11, at a public library branch in Midtown, at least 40 parent coordinators got together for what had been billed as a training session. After workshops on social media and the technological shift in schools, representatives from the family engagement office made their pitch.

“They asked us to get parents to lobby,” said one coordinator at a Manhattan elementary school, who, like others who discussed the meeting, insisted on anonymity for fear that speaking publicly could cost them their jobs. The content of the meeting was reported this week by Gothamschools, an education blog.

Another coordinator, also assigned to a Manhattan elementary school, said the representatives noted that “only complainers come out” to protest to the Panel for Educational Policy, where school closings are decided. The meetings are often dominated by loud protests, often organized by the teachers’ union.

With a vote on 22 school closings scheduled for early February, the coordinators said they were urged to drum up allies among parents in their schools, saying the parents would be more likely to come if they were invited by someone they knew.

The room fell silent, the coordinators recalled. One of them said that when a woman tried to talk about some issues she was having with the principal at her school, one of the office’s representatives said, “No negatives, only positives.”
The phrase would become like a mantra, repeated over and over during the meeting, the coordinators said.

According to the coordinators, the family office representatives also said that because of the city’s financial straits, principals would be allowed to fire parent coordinators to free up money for other staff members and programs in their schools.

“It didn’t feel right for them to do that to us, to tell us that our jobs are in danger and then asking for our help,” one of the coordinators said.

Some principals said they had also become skeptical of the office, and after word got out of the tone of the meeting on Jan. 11, they advised the parent coordinators in their schools against attending future meetings.

In a statement, Ms. Hall acknowledged that circulating the petition this week was improper. “I regret that it happened, because it is not reflective of the day-to-day work that OFIA does to help families navigate the school system,” she said.

And city officials maintained that their efforts to get parents to meetings were not improper. “Our bottom-line goal is to make sure parents are respected stakeholders,” said Mr. Walcott, the deputy mayor.